21 December 2007
A worst-case scenario for the end of the Age of Cheap Energy
The Long Emergency: Surviving the Converging Catastrophes of the Twenty-first Century
James Howard Kunstler
Atlantic Monthly Press, 2005
James Howard Kunstler (the man whose single use of profanity gave the film The End of Suburbia its R-rating) compellingly outlines his vision of the worst-case scenario that faces humanity as peak oil realities kick in and the Age of Cheap Energy comes to a close. Pessimistic about humanity's ability to maintain the level of civilization that we've come to see as "normal" for the last 60 years or so, Kunstler's book describes the catastrophic changes that will converge in the next 5 to 50 years. Climate change (for the sake of brevity, he avoids the issue of whether this climate change is human-induced), the global peak of oil production and the increased violence over those petroleum supplies that remain, new and more virulent diseases, and economic collapse are just a few of the treats that await us and our children in a near-future world devoid of cheap, easy petroleum energy subsidies.
Perhaps the most powerful conceptual tool that Kunstler introduces is "ERoEI" (something like "Energy Return over Energy Invested"). In other words, it takes a certain amount of energy to extract the energy in a given quantity of oil, natural gas, coal, etc., and so even if supplies of a given substance aren't literally exhausted, they can be more expensive (in energetic as well as monetary terms) than they are worth. This ratio has been diminishing as fossil fuel energy sources have become harder to utilize, whether because of their remote location or because of the technical challenges faced in extraction and production. Not only does this ratio indicate the approach of peak oil, argues Kunstler, but it also helps explain why new alternative energy sources like solar, hydrogen, biomass, etc. cannot be viable solutions. This is so, he argues, because they ultimately depend on their underlying bases in the existing fossil fuel energy system (e.g., for the manufacture of wind turbines and solar cells, the hydrolysis of water to produce hydrogen, etc.) And we shouldn't expect the technoscience cavalry to save our butts in the nick of time either because this paradigm of "miracle solutions through science" is itself an artifact of our century-long oil orgy, according to Kunstler. In short, the future as envisioned by Kunstler is a "clusterf*ck" in which a variety of catastrophes converge and reduce our civilization to something reminiscent of earlier and less forgiving times.
Several things about this book contributed to its relatively low rating, given how much I "enjoyed" reading it. (1) The author occasionally drags in unfortunate stereotypes in order to make his point, such as equating all the world's one billion Muslims with brainwashed jihadis or dismissing critiques of structural racism as the work of the political correctness "gestapo." (2) No matter how much he denies it in his introduction, Kunstler approaches the worst-case scenario he outlines with a subtle sense of Schadenfreude. (Although in the interest of full-disclosure, I must admit that I too occasionally harbor similar "I told you so" sentiments when considering our apparently dismal future as a species.) Given that he is talking about the end of civilization as we know it, this slight sense of giddiness is distressing. (3) The book is characterized by a dearth of citations; though most of the points the author makes are quite powerful, he doesn't direct the reader to his sources, and so corroboration is tough. (4) By far my most salient criticism takes issue with this book's pervasive sense of fatalism. While the picture Kunstler paints is certainly disheartening, its underlying message is that there is nothing we can do to reverse our collective fortunes. Maybe this is true, but, to paraphrase Noam Chomsky, hope is only gone when we give up hope. The sense of hopelessness that permeates this book is its greatest weakness.
(This review was originally written on December 14, 2006.)